A month of song! Jewish music fest comes to Bay Area

After 30 years, the Bay Area’s Jewish Music Festival as we know it is going out with a bang, a trill and a heartfelt hallelujah.

Ellie Shapiro decided to step down as festival director and has declared 2015 the last year of the festival — at least in its present form. The reason: the Jewish Music Festival is financially unsustainable.

“We never had an endowment,” she told J. “Every year we would start from zero in terms of fundraising. Jewish music is expensive to do and Jewish culture is underfunded historically. It’s an ongoing challenge.”

The festival is a fiscally sponsored project of the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay. JCC executive director Amy Tobin acknowledges that the festival will have to go through structural, financial and leadership changes, but promises it will return in some form next year.

“I want the people who love [the festival] to know it’s not going away,” Tobin said. “It may be that the curatorial focus will be different, but they can count on the JCC to not drop it. There will be some programming next year. We haven’t designed it yet.”

Meanwhile, there will be plenty of music during the festival’s Feb. 26 to March 22 run at various East Bay venues.

The 2015 lineup includes some familiar names in Jewish music, including the venerable Klezmatics, Yair Dalal and Veretski Pass.

Ellie Shapiro

“This year I wanted artists who are favorites,” Shapiro said. “When they learned it’s the last year, the artists were touched and moved. They get that this is something of value to the community. This was the easiest one to organize.”

The festival kicks off Thursday, Feb. 26 with a musical appetizer, a reprise performance of last year’s “Di Megileh of Itzik Manger,” a fantastical Yiddish-flavored retelling of the Purimspiel, presented by the New Yiddish Theater at the JCC of the East Bay. Five performances through March 3 are scheduled.

Jewish Music Festival stalwarts the Klezmatics headline the official opening night concert March 5 at the New Parish in Oakland. Featuring trumpet player Frank London, the band has played the festival many times over the years.

“The Klezmatics are how I got into this business,” Shapiro said, “in terms of discovering this world of Jewish music that marries my values with Jewish culture. I saw them last December and they are as great as they’ve ever been. They reflect my sensibility like no other group.”

Cantor Jack Mendelson

Renowned Cantor Jack Mendelson, who was trained in the classical cantorial style, will team up with London for a March 7 concert of Jewish liturgical music.

Also on tap: a performance from the women’s chorale Kitka, this year celebrating International Women’s Day with a March 8 concert. The Oakland-based group will sing a mix of Eastern European songs as well as a new piece, “I Will Remember Everything,” based on the poetry of Russian Jewish lesbian writer Sophia Parnok.

As the show coincides with International Women’s Day, Kitka also will honor 88-year-old singer, liberal firebrand and former member of the Weavers, Ronnie Gilbert, with the Jewish Music Festival’s Shofar award.

Shapiro said Gilbert, who lives in Marin, represents “the values behind this festival. I share those values, mixing Jewish culture with progressive Judaism: the values of multiculturalism, pluralism, participation and empowerment. That’s what we try to do with this festival.”

Also set to perform: the rockin’ Sway Machinery sextet on March 10 and jazz bassoonist Paul Hanson on March 11 with a newly commissioned Jewish-themed piece. The multiethnic Israeli ensemble Diwan Saz will make its West Coast concert premiere March 14. Made up of Jewish, Muslim and Christian musicians, the band plays a wild mix of Arab, Turkish and Jewish tunes.

Footloose festivalgoers can get their high-step on at a string of dance workshops led by Yiddish dance specialist Steve Weintraub. He’ll lead a trio of sessions to teach Jewish dance moves, such as the sher, a kind of Yiddish square dance.


As it has done every year, the festival concludes with a party at the JCC — in this case a March 22 sing-along chorus of Leonard Cohen’s classic “Hallelujah,” Yiddish dancing led by Weintraub, and a jam by Bay Area favorites Veretski Pass and the Instant Klezmer Mandolin Orchestra (i.e., bring your mandolin).

Veretski Pass keyboardist Josh Horowitz says he probably won’t shed tears that night, but he laments Shapiro’s departure and understands the financial tightrope she has had to walk.

“Ellie has struggled every year,” he said. “I watch the fundraising of these things. They announce the festival, make contracts with musicians for sums of money they don’t actually have, and [hope] they get it later in the year. It’s always a huge risk.”

Horowitz, who has served on the festival board, has many good memories of the festival, which he and his band played for the first time nearly a decade ago.

“I love the audiences in Berkeley,” he said. “Old and young hippies, [klezmer] revivalists, interfaith, all of the liberal vitamins. It’s haimish, homey, inviting and down to earth.”

The Jewish Music Festival was a much smaller affair when it launched as the Berkeley Jewish Music Festival in 1985, but it was no less haimish and homey. The brainchild of the late German-born Ursula Sherman, who once served as a translator at the post-WWII Nuremberg Trials, the festival went on to become a staple of Bay Area Jewish cultural life.

In the early years, the festival paralleled the klezmer revival that swept North America and Europe. Klezmer dominated the festival’s musical lineup, but over time the aesthetic broadened to include music from Israel, Spain, North Africa and all other points Jewish.

Steve Weintraub

The festival also benefited from major sponsorships. Support from such funders as the Koret Foundation, the Walter and Elise Haas Foundation, the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, and the Jewish Federation of the East Bay allowed the festival to attract top artists and expand beyond Berkeley into San Francisco.

Leading Jewish music figures have performed at the festival over the years, among them Theodore Bikel, clarinetist Joel Rubin, klezmer artist Andy Statman and Cantor Benzion Miller.

Yiddish music specialist Gerry Tenny ran the festival for a few seasons. He was succeeded by producer Laura Sheppard (today the dramaturg of the Yiddish Theater Collective). Shapiro came on board in the late 1990s to co-chair with founder Sherman, and was named director in 2004.

Shapiro also started the festival’s tradition of commissioning new works, but of the many highlights of her tenure, she said the discovery of Arkady Gendler remains her proudest achievement.

An elderly Jewish singer from Ukraine, Gendler had performed at a St. Petersburg music camp Shapiro attended. She knew instantly he was a living treasure trove of unknown Yiddish folk music.

 She arranged to bring him to the festival in 2000 and also put him in the studio to record a CD, “My Hometown Soroke.”

Veretski Pass

“We introduced him to a Western audience,” she said, “and because of that [CD] his Yiddish songs are now an integral part of new Jewish music.”

Shapiro took a leave of absence after the 2012 festival to do field work on her doctoral dissertation on Jewish cultural initiatives in the towns and villages of Poland. Andy Muchin, now the Jewish Life coordinator for the JCC, filled in for her as director.

Coincidental with Shapiro’s hiatus, the Jewish cultural landscape in the Bay Area began to change. On the downside, local institutions such as the Jewish Theater and Israel in the Gardens folded. Elsewhere, KlezKamp, one of the oldest klezmer revival festivals in North America, held annually in upstate New York, wrapped its 30th and final installment last December.

On the plus side, Jewish music is on the ascent, according to those who toil in its vineyards.

Sway Machinery

“There are so many more [Bay Area] klezmer bands than there ever were,” Horowitz noted. “There used to be three. Now there are 20. When I came here in 2001, it was a wasteland. There’s way more happening than there was 10 years ago.”

He cited the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, the Magnes Collection in Berkeley, the Yiddish Theater Collective and the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto as emerging nerve centers of Jewish music programming.

And the Jewish Music Festival is not going away, promises the JCC’s Tobin.

“It’s really important to us to continue [the festival],” Tobin said. “It’s flourished under Ellie’s leadership, and we want to continue doing great Jewish music programming. Anyone who knows me knows I feel the arts are a key part of Jewish life. I want to sustain the festival’s legacy. It’s a question of format.”

Tobin agrees with Shapiro that the festival’s financial model has been unsustainable. That, along with other structural components to the event, will have to change to guarantee the festival survives in some form. The x’s and o’s are yet to be determined.

Shapiro recounted the never-ending challenges of securing financial support and selling tickets, tasks made trickier because often the artists she booked were unknown to general audiences, and a tough sell.

Diwan Saz

“When you deal with music and live concerts, for some reason people don’t get it,” she said. “The festival is about bringing music you’ll hear nowhere else, to introduce [audiences] to new kinds of music, commissioned pieces, world premieres or contemporary Jewish music from a foreign country. It’s always a challenge when people don’t know the artist or genre.”

Horowitz does not blame funders and concertgoers for lack of support. He thinks the arts community here would be better served under the Canadian model, which means greater government support for the arts.

One such beneficiary is KlezKanada, the biggest klezmer festival in the Great White North.

“They have private donors such as Molson beer and Air Canada,” he noted, “but they also have the Canada Council for the Arts. It’s not the fault of the Jewish community, but the fault of our taxation. It would be a mistake to put the onus completely on the Jewish community.”

In the long term, Shapiro looks forward to completing her doctoral dissertation. Short term, she is ready for her victory lap. The Berkeley City Council will honor her and the festival at its Tuesday, Feb. 24 session. Forty-eight hours later, Shapiro puts her game face on for opening night.

And whatever the future may hold for her and the festival she loves, once the music starts next week, she’ll be in the moment.

Said Shapiro, “I feel I’m doing my job best when I’m there just enjoying the music.”

30th annual Jewish Music Festival,
Feb. 26-March 22 at mostly East Bay locations. www.jewishmusicfestival.org

Musician celebrates ‘homecoming’ in Berkeley

dan pine   |   j. staff

Paul Hanson talks animatedly and carries a big stick: his bassoon.

While bassoon may not be the first instrument most people think of when it comes to jazz or klezmer, if anyone has the chops to change that, it’s Hanson. He’s a veritable whirlwind on the woodwind.

The Berkeley-based musician and composer will play for the hometown crowd when he premieres his newly commissioned piece, “Homecoming,” on March 11 at Berkeley’s Freight and Salvage and March 12 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. The concerts are part of this year’s Jewish Music Festival.

Paul Hanson on the bassoon

Hanson says his 12-part song cycle — scored for cello, violin, guitar, drums and bassoon — came to him in the wake of returning to California after a three-year musical sojourn in Japan.

Unlike his hyperkinetic jazz work, “Homecoming” is more sedate and formal, drawing on familiar klezmer tropes and rhythms. Yet he still allows the players freedom to improvise, much as jazz musicians do routinely.

“It was inspired by being in different worlds,” he says, “and thinking about where I’m really from. You can never completely go home again when you’ve been away that long.”

It’s also about rediscovery of his long-dormant Jewish roots, a process that began while living in Japan. He moved there in 2008 to serve as musical soloist in Cirque du Soleil’s resident show at the Tokyo Disney Resort. Though Hanson loved Japan and its people, culture shock reminded him of his Jewish past.

“When we moved to Berkeley, my dad got interested in folk music,” he recalls of his early teen years. “[The pioneering klezmer revival band] Klezmorim rehearsed at our house, with my dad on clarinet. I thought of that in Japan. Those moments are what started me as a musician.”

He started out taking clarinet and saxophone lessons, then had the good fortune to be able to participate in Berkeley High School’s music department, especially its jazz band. There he added jazz to his list of musical dialects —  classical, blues and klezmer among them — all of which he mastered.

Early on, Hanson supplemented his classical training by playing blues in local clubs such as the Lucky Lion in Concord. But eventually he attached a mic to his new favorite instrument and began experimenting with the electric jazz bassoon.

The instrument has a remarkable range, capable of notes well above middle C (not to mention low tones down in humpback whale territory). Turned out bassoon was well suited to the chromatic chaos of modern jazz.

“It has a very vocal range,” he says, “about the same as a tenor sax. I’d always been looking for unique music and forms of improvising.”

After graduating from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Hanson went on to play with leading figures from across the musical spectrum, including Bela Fleck, Wayne Shorter, Ray Charles, Boz Scaggs, Billy Childs and  Bob Weir, and as a classical soloist with the Napa Symphony Orchestra.

Hanson has played the Jewish Music Festival before, as part of the ensemble Davka. And as a clarinetist, he played with Klezmorim, the same band his father jammed with years earlier. That experience hit home for him, especially when he toured Europe.

“You’d see people break down in tears,” he remembers. “They would give us hugs and say they hadn’t heard this music in decades.”

Unlike Hanson’s jazz work, which utilizes loops, pedals and other cool techno-enhancements, the new song cycle is purely acoustic. That, he says, brings out the “warm and soulful” qualities of the bassoon.

“The instrument has a lot of open holes,” he says. “You can go between the notes and slur. The bassoon has an old world quality, yet I do what I can with it.”

Paul Hanson Ensemble performs “Homecoming” in the Jewish Music Festival, 8 p.m. March 11 at Freight and Salvage,  Berkeley, and 6 p.m. March 12 at Contemporary Jewish Museum, S.F.  $20-$27. www.jewishmusicfestival.org

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.